Not everything is autofiction
Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier features a pregnant 18 year old who, without much of a plan, delivers pizzas in her suburban Los Angeles enclave. The pizza-wielding narrator is deeply unresolved about a few things: becoming a mother; her recently deceased father; and Billy, her boyfriend and the weirdly compassionate father of her coming child. The narrator describes her world with singular insights that set her apart as perceptive. For example, she chronicles the unrest of Karl, the boyfriend of her coworker Darryl:
“Ketchup no longer tasted right, law school was starting to give him headaches, at night he lay awake next to the man he loved and counted sheep, 202, 203, 204, tried not to ask the question that had ruined his favorite condiment, spoiled his dreams, replaced sleep with sheep—is this it?”
I don’t doubt Frazier has lived much of the narrator’s life, but, importantly, there’s little sense in her novel of our 21st century tendency toward autofiction, fictionalized autobiography. Her tale, while clearly relying on her past experience, also offers a lyrical style that isn’t afraid at points to be the raison d’être of her work. I’ve enjoyed autofiction by Knausgaard, Lin, and Nunez—and, for that matter, many of the memoirs from the past 20 years—but Frazier’s work brings into relief what autofiction and memoir give up by relying so heavily on this happened to me for narrative pull.
In short, Pizza Girl feels like fiction, and the nimbleness and evocativeness of her prose shines through as something more special, rare. It makes you realize what we as readers give up when we allow non-fiction approaches to dominate the literary landscape. With autofiction and memoir, the reader gets the voyeur experience, and who can turn that down? But in trade, you sacrifice what 20th century writers from Updike to Morrison to Nabokov spent their careers trying to grasp: the ineffable.
Jenny, a single mother of a finicky seven year old who likes pickles on his pizza, throws our narrator for a loop. The pair chat about kids, attend a mothers’ group, and go out for a late-night junk food binge. When the narrator rebuts Jenny’s efforts to get her to open up about her father, Jenny counters:
“’Okay, what do you want to talk about?’
It was an awkward question even though it shouldn’t have been. I realized that directness wasn’t a quality I was used to, that the conversations I had were often dictated by others and made me nervous, like I was trying to transport a handful of sand from location A to location B without losing a single grain.”
Without a strong sense of this happened to me, Frazier has to use other methods to reveal her Pizza Girl protagonist and compel her reader forward. Her use of figurative language, such as her sand metaphor, is often her strongest weapon. This approach is more penetrating than anything by autofiction master Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose epic-length My Struggle, while eminently consumable, seems trapped in a kind of long social media overshare. There’s virtually no chance his narrator might break free from his malaise. In Frazier’s novel, Jenny represents a generous presence that offers hope for the narrator’s transformation. The narrator can allow herself to believe in Jenny and, thus, in her own future.
By contrast, for 22-year-old protagonist Mike Muñoz of Jonathan Evison’s novel Lawn Boy, topiary landscaping serves as his hope not only for escaping his working-poor straits but also as a means of expression. Capitalism, how to make enough money to get out of poverty, is the equivalent of The Force in Lawn Boy. It’s not that Mike wants to be like the local Realtor with his face plastered all over everything, or the entrepreneur who’s always trying to skirt the law. Still, those characters running around his Bainbridge Island enclave offer him hope that his own thing might pan out if he just figures out how to crack the code.
Of course, capitalism has to mess with someone with such a simple, useful dream as becoming a landscaper, and Mike soon finds himself out of the business and stuck inside assembling gewgaws for the entrepreneur. Mike’s longing for a life amongst the lawn clippings conjures Evison’s most lyrical passages.
“Sometimes, though, as I’m looking out the window at the business park, my fingers employed thoughtlessly, I get a little wistful for landscaping. I miss the fresh air. I miss the satisfaction of pruning hedges and raking out flower beds. Hell, even deadheading rhodies. Don’t even get me started on topiary.”
If diary-like plotlessness sometimes characterizes autofiction, Evison’s novel feels constructed in the best sense of the word. The story starts in the right place, somehow follows an unpredictable path to take you to where you sensed it ought to go, then surprises you with an ending you realized you should’ve seen coming all along. With construction comes artifice, which autofiction typically lacks, but Evison compensates for his more formal narrative approach by offering plenty of visceral working-class details and landscaping vernacular.
The biggest separation of Pizza Girl and Lawn Boy from other 21st-century literary efforts is that neither authors tries too much to tell us about themselves so much as about their fictional worlds. What would be the point, in the 21st century, of telling us about themselves? That’s what Facebook is for! Many have learned to come to fiction for something other than the big personal reveal. We look for transformative experiences that remain with us for much longer than the latest news cycle. I’m glad a few authors out there are still doing it.
(Pizza Girl, Doubleday, June 9, 2020)
(Lawn Boy, Algonquin Books, April 3, 2018)